miércoles, 25 de noviembre de 2015

Les chercheurs d'os

Les chercheurs d'os (Éditions du Seuil, 1984)
by Tahar Djaout
Algeria, 1984

Tahar Djaout was only 30 at the time of the publication of Les chercheurs d'os [The Bone Collectors, unavailable in English] and all of 39 the year he was assassinated by Islamist extremists.  While this depressing biographical note certainly colored my reading of the novel, it'd be a mistake to attribute the novel's emotional power to any sentimentality on Djaout's part: Les chercheurs d'os is a wrenching affair but also a low-key one that's understatedly told.  To help explain the significance of the title, I should probably begin by mentioning that the narrator of the work is a young teenage boy who sets out with a distant relative, Rabah Ouali, in search of the remains of the older brother who had perished three years earlier fighting "l'armée d'occupation" ["the army of occupation"] (140) during Algeria's war of independence against the French.  The ensuing travelogue gives the boy a chance to comment on all of the new sights he's taking in upon leaving his Kabylie village for the first time and gives Djaout a chance to rue the continuing famine and poverty and other aftereffects of the war during the boy's quest for the "os martyrs" ["martyred bones"] of his older brother (44).  Highlights.  As might be expected from a "simple" but convincing first person narration, Djaout is a master of voice and nuance.  At the very least, the older brother's explanation to his younger brother concerning his reasons for joining the resistance--"Le sang est parfois nécessaire" ["(The shedding of) blood is sometimes necessary"] (106)--rings particularly true within the confines of a fictive space which also muses on French military abuses in an evenhanded and non-partisan way.  In one of the more memorable scenes from the novel, for example, Rabah Ouali tells the young narrator about his discovery of a dropped or discarded letter from a father in mainland France which had been sent to the army commander occupying the main characters' village.  The gist of the letter?  The father warns the son not to bring shame upon his "famille très respectable" ["very respectable family"] by perpetrating cruelties on the very people whose country he was occupying so "arbitrairement" ["arbitrarily"]--a perspective which surprises  Rabah Ouali because he never knew "des étrangers" ["outsiders"] existed who shared this view of their land (41).  Great anecdote.  While not a highlight per se, I was also very taken by Djaout's restraint and subtlety.  In a novel ostensibly devoted to the search for and repatriation of the "cadavres héroïques" ["heroic cadavers"] (70) of the fallen and in a novel in which man and boy earnestly discuss whether death arrives and whispers "Je suis la mort" ["I am Death"] to its victims (153), I was hardly expecting to be so won over by non-flashy prose that instead trades in the currency of an almost picaresque-like immediacy (sans the jokes, of course).  Djaout was supposedly murdered, by the way, for having "wielded a fearsome pen that could have an effect on Islamic sectors," a cowardly act to be sure but a cowardly act that proves that even cowardly murderers might know a thing or two about literary criticism from time to time.

Tahar Djaout (1954-1993)

martes, 17 de noviembre de 2015

L'homme à l'envers

L'homme à l'envers (J'ai Lu, 2015)
by Fred Vargas
France, 1999

Stupid ending and previsible villain aside, Fred Vargas' L'homme à l'envers [literally Inside-Out Man but Englishized as Seeking Whom He May Devour] was still an otherwise intelligent and entertaining enough page-turner that I wouldn't hesitate to read another of her Commissaire Adamsberg mysteries or to give a try to her so-called Three Evangelists series or even both.  Intelligent and entertaining?  The proof is in the pudding, dude.  For most of the whodunit/"roade-mouvie" (182), Vargas is sufficiently understated and amusing to get away with spinning an audaciously farfetched story in which characters actually debate whether an enormous wolf or an actual werewolf is at all responsible for a series of barbaric wolf attack-like slayings across France.  No mean feat!  Pros: Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is appealingly enigmatic as the intuition- rather than logic-based crime-solving star of the show, and both the Parisian Commissaire and his love interest and even the minor characters are all way more subtly drawn/believable than the narrator Dino in Alberto Moravia's Boredom or the overwrought mother-in-law Fay in Eudora Welty's The Optimist's Daughter (two supposedly "good" books I totally hated and now no longer need to review, thank you very much).  Cons: Although I jotted down a fair amount of new to me French vocab to look up during my time with the novel, I didn't take note of any cool lines to share with you here and my emphasis on characterization above probably should be construed as damning with faint praise.  Bottom line: OK, serviceable prose, not as dumb as most thrillers.  Wait, did I just say a fucking werewolf?!?

Fred Vargas

sábado, 14 de noviembre de 2015

Meursault, contre-enquête

Meursault, contre-enquête (Actes Sud, 2015)
by Kamel Daoud
Algeria, 2013

"Aujord'hui, M'ma est encore vivante" ["Mama is still alive today"] (11) intones the narrator at the outset of Meursault, contre-enquète [The Meursault Investigation] in words that clearly echo but just as clearly subvert the familiar opening lines of Albert Camus' L'étranger.  The subversive narrator of this postcolonial call and response almost three quarters of a century in the making?  Haroun, a now 70-something Algerian who claims to be the brother of "l'Arabe" gunned down on the beach by the French Algerian protagonist of the 1942 best seller that inspired this counter-inquiry into l'affaire Meursault.  So how does what Haroun refers to as "un crime commis dans un livre" ["a crime committed in a book"] (27), a book itself described as a "mensonge sublime" ["sublime lie"] (58), morph into such fascinating intertextual reading matter? To begin with, beyond the expected settling of scores with L'étranger's author on literary accounts--"As-tu vu sa façon d'écrire?" ["Have you seen his style of writing?"], he asks.  "Il semble utiliser l'art du poème pour parler d'un coup de feu!" ["He seems to use the art of the poem to speak of a gunshot!"] (12); for sloppy ethnocentrism--"On le désignait comme l'Arabe" ["He's called the Arab"], Haroun says of his murdered brother Moussa, "même chez les Arabes.  C'est une nationalité, 'Arabe', dis-moi?  Il est-où, ce pays que tous proclament comme leur ventre, leurs entrailles,qui ne trouve nulle part?"  ["even among Arabs.  Tell me, is 'Arab' a nationality?  Where is it, this country which everybody claims as their womb, their heart, but which can't be found anywhere?"] (148); and for the perhaps much greater crime of having become famous for the writing of a book about a murder in which he couldn't even be bothered to mention the name of "l'Arabe" whom he had killed under a blinding sun, Haroun goes off script so to speak and dialogues not just with the author of L'étranger but with Algerian history and memory.  One particularly juicy example of how his rambling monologue intersects with Algerian history and lit in such delightfully messy ways is that Haroun expressly politicizes the situation by mocking Meursault and his kind for never really belonging in or to Algeria in the first place.  "Le meurtre qu'il a commis semble celui d'un amant déçu par une terre qu'il ne peut posséder" ["The murder which he committed resembles that of a lover deceived by a land which he could not possess"], we read.  "Comme il a dû souffrir, le pauvre!  Étre l'enfant d'un lieu qui ne vous a pas donné naissance" ["How he must have suffered, the poor guy!  To be the child of a place which did not give birth to you"] (13).  On that note, this is probably a good time to point out how Haroun's strange gendered topography of both Oran ("cette ville a les jambes ouvertes vers la mer, les cuisses écartées, depuis la baie jusqu'à ses hauteurs, là où se trouve ce jardin exubérant et odorant" ["this city with its legs open to the sea, thighs spread, from the bay to its hills, there where this exuberant and fragant garden is located"]--a garden which he has just compared to a woman's vagina! (22)--and Algiers ("vielle actrice démodée de l'art révolutionnaire" ["an over the hill, old-fashioned actress of the art of revolution"] (62) frames Algeria as a once desirable female fought over by possessors and possessed.  Whatever the character's views on whether this "woman" was really worth fighting over, the salient point is that Haroun--who, to be fair, also admits to loving Oran at night "malgré la prolifération des rats" ["despite the proliferation of rats"] (59) in what seems like a mischievous reference prompted by another Oran-situated novel by the name of La peste--suggests that even though "chasser tous les Meursault" ["hunting all the Meursaults"] (92) was an explicit strategy of Algeria's quest for independence, the anti-intruder violence didn't cease after all the Meursaults were pushed into the sea.  In fact, "La mort, aux premiers jours de l'Indépendance, était aussi gratuite, absurde et inattendu qu'elle avait l'avait été sur une plage ensoleillée de 1942" ["in the days following Independence, death was as gratuitous, absurd and unexpected as it had been on a beach bathed in sunshine in 1942"] (115).  In other words, et voilà!

Kamel Daoud

Thanks to The Modern Novel blog for introducing me to Meursault, contre-enquête just over a year ago in this review here.  Thanks to Frances of Nonsuch Book for reading Daoud's novel with me this past week.  Her review can be found here.

jueves, 12 de noviembre de 2015

Total Khéops

Total Khéops (Folio Policier, 2014)
par Jean-Claude Izzo
La France, 1995

Ils étaient de Marseille, marseillais avant d'être arabes.  Avec la même conviction que nos parents.  Comme nous l'étions Ugo, Manu et moi à quinze ans.  Un jour, Ugo avait demandé: << Chez moi, chez Fabio, on parle napolitain.  Chez toi, on parle espagnol.  En classe, on apprend le français.  Mais on est quoi, dans le fond ? >>
- Des Arabes, avait répondu Manu.
Nous avions éclaté de rire.
(Total Khéops, 257)

Il y a vingt ans, Manu, Ugo et Fabio étaient copains d'enfance dans le quartier des immigrés à Marseille.  Manu et Ugo sont devenus escrocs.  Fabio est devenu flic.  Quand Manu et ensuite Ugo sont tués dans un court laps de temps vingt ans après, le seul survivant des trois, Fabio Montale, mène une enquête criminelle pour savoir qui a tué ses vieux amis et se retrouve soudain dans le milieu d'une guerre des gangs entre le crime organisé, des ripoux marseillais, et des truands locaux.  Une rude tâche, bien sûr!  Un très bon policier raconté avec brio et beaucoup d'energie et marqué par une quantité prodigieuse de l'argot, Total Khéops c'est une introduction géniale à l'oeuvre du marseillais Jean-Claude Izzo (1945-2000).  Stylistiquement, Izzo utilise des phrases courtes à la James Ellroy pour accélér la vélocité de sa prose avec succès.  Il aussi excelle dans l'art de la petite phrase: << Une gueule à la Lee Marvin.  Une gueule de tueur, pas de flic >> (73).  Même si tout le monde sait que le romancier était un créateur d'ambiance par excellence, j'ai été très impresionné par ses descriptions méticuleuses sur la nature de la transformation de Marseille au cours des années: << Le sol était jonché de sacs d'ordures éventrés et il s'élevait des rues une odeur âcre, mélange de pisse, d'humidité et de moisi >>, commence un tel passage.  << Seul grand changement, la rénovation avait gagné le quartier.  Des maisons avaient été démolies.  Les façades des autres étaient repeintes, en ocre et rose, avec des persiennes vertes ou bleues, a l'itallienne >>  (51).  Quant à ses idées, Izzo se donne beaucoup de mal pour faire voir á Marseille dans toute sa complexité.  En d'autres termes, cela explique l'attention de l'écrivain à l'intersection du crime et de la corruption policière et au sujet du racisme, et caetera.  Devant le cadavre d'Ugo, par exemple, Fabio parle de comment << mes collègues avaient joué les cow-boys.  Quand ils tiraient, ils tuaient.  C'était aussi simple.  Des adeptes du général Custer.  Un bon Indien, c'est un Indien mort.  Et à Marseille, des Indiens, il n'y avait que ça, ou presque >> (71).  Autre part, Fabio parle de << la saloperie humaine du monde >> (252) avec le pessimisme d'un flic de longue date et décrit avec force détails comment Marseille est devenue la ville auquelle la fin du monde avance à cause de la haine et de la violence sans contrainte: "Il n'était nul besoin d'armes nucléaires.  Nous nous entre-tuerons avec une savagerie préhistorique >> (282).  Cela dit, dans un roman qui se concentre sur le racisme à la France en général et à Marseille en particulier comme autre exemple de << la connerie humaine >> (98), je suis encore pris pour dépourvu pour rencontrer cette réflexion déchirante sur l'exil dans une scène où un pere avait appris que sa fille avait été violée et tuée: << Mouloud venait de perdre la deuxième femme de sa vie.  L'Algérie n'était plus son pays.  La France venait de le rejeter définitivement.  Maintenant il n'était plus qu'un pauvre Arabe >> (140).  Époustouflant.

Jean-Claude Izzo (1945-2000)

Total Khéops paraît dans La trilogie Fabio Montale de Jean-Claude Izzo (Paris: Folio Policier, 2014, 43-304).

jueves, 29 de octubre de 2015

Le planétarium

Le planétarium (Folio, 2009)
by Nathalie Sarraute
France, 1959

A propensity for backstabbing their family and friends notwithstanding, callow Parisian lovebirds and interior decoration snobs Alain and Gisèle Guimier outwardly appear to be a most charming young couple--or at least it almost seems that way until entitled eternal student Alain lets his annoying Aunt Berthe know that he'll do just about anything in his power to hound her out of her fashionable Passy apartment so that he and his wife can inhabit it instead (at a critical juncture in this family squabble, in fact, a sly observation is made to the effect that the emotionally cornered Berthe awaits the next attack from the couple "comme le vieux sanglier quand il se retourne et s'assied face à la meute" ["like the old wild boar when it turns around and sits facing the pack of hounds"] (183)...with apologies if I've already revealed too much about the almost plotless plot (pure nouveau roman effrontery!), rest assured that Nathalie Sarraute's amusingly caustic and narratively frisky Le planétarium--looked at one way, a character assassination of an entire generation of shallow contempo Parisians & looked at another way, a proto-Seinfeldian "show about nothing" livened up by breathless interior monologues and a series of unnamed narrators who are sometimes only properly introduced in subsequent chapters' gossipy narrative orbits--is just mad fun, I kid you not...to leave you with a specific example of why ça marche pour moi, one need only contrast this somewhat restrained class-conscious dismissal of Alain Guimier as "un bien gentil petit, insatisfait, inquiet... produit trés pur de sa classe : jeune intellectuel bourgeois marié à une petite fille gâtée comme lui... Écureuils tournant dans leur cage dorée" ["a good-looking, nice young man--unsatisfied, anxious...very pure product of his class: young bourgeois intellectual married to a young girl just as spoiled as he...  Squirrels wheeling back and forth in their golden cage"] (233, ellipsis added at the very end) with the totally unrestrained personal attack on the couple courtesy of Alain's high-strung mother-in-law which likens their hypocrisy and lies with the sort of words which "autrefois révélaient l'hérésie et conduisaient droit au bûcher" ["in former times revealed heresy and led right to the stake"] (43).  Yep, c'est vachement drôle.

Nathalie Sarraute (1900-1999)

 With apologies to Obooki, I believe I'm the first member of the Wolves to join him in this now nearly five year old group read.  Let's do it again sometime, shall we?

jueves, 15 de octubre de 2015


L'étranger (Folio, 2014)
by Albert Camus
French Algeria, 1942

"Aujourd'hui, maman est morte.  Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas" ["Mom died today.  Or maybe yesterday, I don't know"] confides the eerily detached narrator at the outset of L'etranger [The Stranger].  "J'ai reçu un télégramme de l'asile : << Mère décédée.  Enterrement demain.  Sentiments distingués.  >> Cela ne veut rien dire.  C'était peut-être hier" ["I received a telegram from the old people's home: 'Mother deceased.  Burial tomorrow.  Regards.'  That means nothing.  Maybe it was yesterday"] (9). Meursault, the pied noir narrator of Camus' first novel and an enigmatic character who variously comes across as either "slow," mentally ill, evil or some toxic mix of all of the above even if you don't buy his oddly persuasive story that he's extremely debilitated by the blinding power of the Algerian sun, coolly goes on to cop to the crime of having gunned down a man described only as "l'Arabe" ["the Arab"] (92).  In the trial that follows, a guilty verdict is arrived at which seems to stem more from the accused's apparent lack of sorrow over his mother's death and from his lack of remorse over the unnamed homicide victim's death than from the possibly premeditated hate crime slaying of "l'Arabe" itself.  Having not read L'étranger in something like 25 or 30 years but having wanted to reacquaint myself with the novel in anticipation of finally getting around to reading Kamel Daoud's 2013 literary sensation Meursault, contre-enquête [The Meursault Investigation], I was happy to be reminded about how powerful and, well, unsettling Camus' classic is--not least for the primal nature of the spare first person narration; the ethical sleight of hand with which the novelist manages to build some sympathy for the narrator even though Meursault's guilt as a cold-blooded killer is never in doubt; and for the occasional moments like this one in which four bullets gratuitously shot into a dead man's already inert corpse are almost lyrically transformed into a description equating them with being something like "quatre coups brefs que je frappais sur la porte du malheur" ["four brief knocks on the door of misfortune"] (93).  In short, the best novel penned by a French Algerian Joe Strummer lookalike that I'm likely to sing the praises of all month.

Albert Camus (1913-1960)